Friday, June 21, 2013

An interview with Ben Lang of RoadToVR

I see greater and greater opportunities for intersection between professional VR equipment and consumer VR gear. As such, I had the chance to interview Ben Lang who has been actively writing on consumer VR at his blog roadtovr.com for quite some time.

Ben, thank you for speaking with me. For those that do not know you, please tell us who are you and what do you do?

My name is Ben Lang, I've been entrenched in the tech blogging world for around six years now. Much of my prior work was with mobile tech (smartphones and the like). I started Road to VR in 2011 to chart the world's progress toward true virtual reality. I've been a life long gamer and gaming industry observer. Much of my desire to see VR happen has to do with experiencing games in new and exciting ways, though I realize that VR has much more to offer.

What attracted you most to virtual reality?

The infinite possibilities are what draws me to learning everything I can about virtual reality. With a true VR system (a la Matrix), you could essentially do anything. You could rewrite the laws of physics if you felt like it. VR is a platform to make your imagination come to life -- a blank canvas upon which to invent your own paradise -- who wouldn't be attracted to that!

Are you a gamer? What are your favorite games? What are your favorite goggle-enabled games? Which games would you most like to see VR-enabled?

I've been gaming for pretty much my entire life. While I don't have as much time to game these days as I'd like -- and I'm not one of those people who owns every console and has played every game -- I've always try to keep my finger on the pulse of the game industry -- in fact, I might spend more time reading and learning about the game industry than playing games!
Mega Man X is one of my favorite early games. In the modern generation I've been a longtime Halo player (or maybe I should say 'was', now that Halo 4 derailed the series after changing developers). At this point I'm looking forward most to Bungie's latest title, Destiny. And like everyone else, I'm still waiting on Half-Life 3.
Since it's still the early days of consumer VR, there aren't many full-fledged games out on the market supporting HMDs with headtracking. I've played Valve's Half-Life 2 with Oculus Rift support. It's a pretty interesting experience -- much more immersive than on a 2D monitor, but the game was never intended to be used with VR so there are some less than desirable facets of gameplay which can cause problems in VR. Things like sprinting, falling, and quickly turning can lead to nausea.

That said, some of the cooler Oculus Rift demos out there are Sixense's Tuscany (with Razer Hydra support), and Titans of Space. I'm also very much looking forward to two forthcoming Rift-ready titles, The Gallery: Six Elements and Among the Sleep.

Naturally, I'd love to see Halo in VR. In the game you control a supersoldier in futuristic combat armor. The lore of the game is such that the HUD elements are supposed to be part of the character's helmet and suit interface. He also has an AI partner which inhabits the suit and helps him on missions. It would be neat to feel like you were really in the suit, looking through the helmet, and hear the AI character's voice as though it was coming from within the suit.

Today, most VR gaming is with a PC. Do you envision a big market for goggles that are paired with a smartphone or tablet?

It does seem that in the near future we'll have smartphones and tablets capable of creating decent VR experiences, and I fully expect a market to emerge. For one, it would allow for portable VR experiences that would inherently untether you from your desk, allowing you to play a game and actually walk around in a large space without getting tangled.

The portability would also be great for productivity. Today many of us use laptops to work from one place to the next, but the size of the screen often makes the productivity experience feel like a compromise With VR you could have a full virtual reality desktop, that's bigger than any laptop screen, and it would be accessible with some goggles and a smartphone, affording you a huge virtual productivity space in almost any location.

What has been your experience, or the experience of those that you have spoken to, regarding using goggles for a long time. Do you expect people to use goggles for hours and hours just like they play in front of a PC?

I've given a number of Oculus demos and what I see is that some people are affected more than others when it comes to simulator sickness. In my experience, and what I've heard from others, is the more you use VR, the more you get used to it and avoid any nausea for the most part -- though there are still some things you can do which will make anybody dizzy no matter how experienced they are.
As long as the ergonomics are right, I could certainty see people spending extended periods of time inside VR games.

Looking 18-24 months into the future, do you think the hottest VR game is an existing game that has been well-adapted to VR, or is it an entirely new game or experience?

Definitely a new game. There are lots of great titles out there now, but the best games will almost certainly be designed specifically for VR. For one they need to be designed with gameplay that doesn't make people sick. Also, taking away the mouse and keyboard in favor of a more natural way of interacting, like the Razer Hydra, adds a lot to the immersive experience even on top of using an HMD. New games will be able to use such natural interactions to do stuff that wouldn't have been possible in traditional games.

The opportunity for new genres will be present too. While action-paced FPS games are a staple of the current generation of games, VR offers a new perspective. Something like a murder mystery game might work really well in VR. Imagine being able to kneel down, reach out with your virtual hand, and dust for fingerprints at a crime scene. That kind of interaction is something you'd normally see in a cutscene, but rarely something that the gamer would actually be involved in.

There is work on wearable accessories to enhance the gaming experience, such as a haptic vest that might allow you to feel when you are hit. How open would you be to wearing such accessories when playing games?

I'd be very willing to wear that kind of accessory, so long as it's reasonably comfortable, and I think that such a vest will be an important part of the VR equipment puzzle. I see anything that enhances the level of immersion as a positive. With a proper vest, explosions and gun shots are obvious and exciting. But imagine feeling a hug from a virtual character... or even from another avatar who is controller by a real person; suddenly you've opened up a new channel of communication between real and virtual; game designers and storytellers will use those new channels to tell ever more compelling stories.

What do you feel gamers want beyond affordable high-quality goggles?

A way to walk in VR. One of the questions I get with almost everyone I put into the Sixense Tuscany Oculus Rift demo is "can I actually walk around in here?" The sense of presence is so great that it's natural to want to stroll around. Sadly I have to tell them that their walking is controlled by a thumbstick!
Fortunately there are some interesting consumer VR locomotion solutions in the works, like the Virtuix Omni and the WizDish.

What's your stance on AR vs. VR? Is one more useful than the other? Is one bound to come before the other?

I find VR inherently more useful because it offers unlimited possibilities in a fully virtual space, whereas AR is constrained by reality. Still, AR has the potential to be highly useful in our daily lives, advising us on everything from traffic to cooking instructions -- though I think the world has yet to see a much needed 'killer app' for AR.
In the near term, VR and AR are aiming for very different use-cases. In the longer term, when AR and VR are perfected, the terms will become largely irrelevant as we'll all be wearing devices that are capable of both.

What have you seen in the professional virtual reality market that you would like to see ported to the consumer world?

Professional motion capture systems are an ideal VR interface. Unfortunately they are complex and are cost-prohibitive. A system that is inexpensive and easy to set up would let you transport your every action into your favorite game.

Let’s say you were advising Samsung on how to best create a consumer gamer goggle, building on their consumer-electronics expertise and high-quality smartphone displays. What would you recommend that Samsung do?

Focus on the experience first. It doesn't matter what your HMD looks like, what optical solution you use, or what specs you put on the box -- if it doesn't live up to the promise, and isn't affordable, it won't go anywhere. Gamers want a wide field of view, extremely responsive head tracking, and high resolution.
Content is also extremely important. Getting developers to make content compatible with your HMD is a chicken and egg problem; developer funds and contests are great ways to seed early development to ensure that your platform has content worth playing.

Ben, thank you very much. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on roadtovr.com

UPDATE: Ben has now interview me on his site

1 comment:

Sean Lumly said...

I'm excited for your entry into consumer VR. I think there is a niche market that would be willing to pay more (~$1000) for superior resolution, FOV, optics, and tracking, but the software support must be there (ie. it works with widely-used VR APIs).